The Elmhirst Connection

Leonard Elmhirst, of Yorkshire, England, borrowed fifty pounds from a friend for passage to New York in 1919 with the idea of studying agriculture at Cornell University. While he was stationed in India during the war, he became interested in the country's farming villages and their problems. He decided to study modern agriculture techniques to help India in its development. It was a departure from the life he was expected to lead. Elmhirst was a Cambridge graduate in history who was expected to take over his father's pulpit and manage the family property in Yorkshire. But, the war had shaken his religious beliefs and set him on a different course. He wanted to help solve some of the world's social and economic problems.

Elmhirst lived in the Cosmopolitan Club at Cornell. (The club was formed in 1904 to provide cultural and social opportunities for foreign students and in 1911 opened a house on Bryant Avenue. The club went out of existence in 1954, but the building still stands.) In the spring of 1920, after Elmhirst was elected president of the club, he discovered it was in tremendous debt (eighty thousand dollars), and if something didn't turn up soon, it would shut down. Interested faculty members had kept the club going with their donations, but expenses rose faster than income. It was Elmhirst's job to save the club.

In a few months, Elmhirst found the time and enough money for train fare to New York. In New York, Elmhirst met a Mrs. Straight at the Colony Club on Park Avenue (the most distinguished club for women only in New York with a side entrance for male guests). Elmhirst knew that before Major Straight left for France, he and another Cornell alumnus had worked out a plan for saving the Cosmopolitan Club, and he was aware of Straight's will to make Cornell a more humane place. Not only did he find Mrs. Straight interested in the club, but as Elmhirst's invitation she agreed to "pay that most beautiful of campuses a visit." Dorothy Straight provided an amount equal to 70 percent of the Cosmopolitan Club's indebtedness, and she contributed $5,000 to renovate the clubhouse. During her visit to Cornell, she also met with George Burr, professor of medieval history and a close friend of Willard Straight's; and several more of Straight's faculty friends took her for a drive. Elmhirst learned that the big topic of discussion among the group of professors and Mrs. Straight had been what form a memorial building for Major Straight should take. The weight had come down on the side of a union building.

Elmhirst finished his agriculture degree at Cornell in August 1921 (he completed a four-year degree in two years) and left for India shortly afterwards. His direct connection in the planning of the union building came to an end, but his intimate relationship with Dorothy Straight began. Leonard Elmhirst and Dorothy Straight were married in April 1925 and later had two children. And, Dorothy Straight had made up her mind about how she would follow her husband's request to make Cornell a more human place: she would build a student center.


Cofer, R. H. 1990. The Straight story: an informal history of Willard Straight Hall  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University